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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Editor’s Corner

“Poetic License” On Complex Issues

(NOTE: This item by Ed Kilgore was originally posted at The Daily Strategist on March 26, 2008).
Yesterday we published a guest post by Progressive Policy Institute president Will Marshall warning that all three surviving major-party presidential candidates seem to be gripped by a primary-season focus that’s leading them to say things on certain issues they may regret in a general election contest or in office. His particular focus was on the alleged competition between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton to demonize NAFTA and identify with an out-now position on Iraq, though McCain’s conservative-pleasing “victory” talk about Iraq drew his ire as well.
I beg to differ with my friend Will Marshall, not because I deny the primary-general tension that has always existed in every contested nomination contest, but because I think the Democratic candidates aren’t just pandering to primary voters, but are trying to address exceptionally complex issues in ways that are difficult to capture in simple campaign messages.
Iraq’s the clearest case. Will’s right that public support for immediate withdrawal from Iraq has always been low, and has sagged a bit in recent months. From my own reading of many polls on the subject, I’d say a strong plurality of Americans are pretty much where they’ve been for two-to-three years: the Iraq War was a mistake, and the U.S. military engagement there should be ended as quickly and as thoroughly as a non-catastrophic outcome will permit. Doubts about the pace of withdrawal seem to be linked to the fear of a collapse of the country into chaos; there’s not much evidence of strong support for the “flypaper” theory that the war is making America safer by “pinning down” al Qaeda militants, or for the constant GOP assertion that anything less than “victory” will “embolden our enemies” and represent a major blow to our overall security posture.
The specific Iraq plans of both Democratic candidates contemplate regularly scheduled withdrawals of combat troops accompanied by various political and diplomatic initiatives, hedged by a residual force commitment closely linked to avoidance of the very catastrophic contingencies that most Americans seem to fear. Both candidates predict that a decisive shift away from a combat role for U.S. troops will produce the international involvement and Iraqi political breakthrough necessary to maintain stability. But both candidates also refuse to rule out a renewal of more active military role in Iraq if the country dissolves into sectarian chaos, if outsiders intervene, or if al-Qaeda-in-Iraq stages a comeback. Looks to me like Clinton and Obama are nicely positioned with public opinion on Iraq, aside from their basic difference as to whether the whole Iraq commitment was a mistake in conception (Obama) or in execution (Clinton).
What seems to bug Will Marshall is that Obama and Clinton are emphasizing the aspects of their very similar plans that predict a move towards withdrawal will produce a breakthrough, rather than highlighting their residual military commitments. But while the two candidates may possibly be wrong about the positive galvanic effect of a withdrawal timetable, it’s hard to say they are being dishonest or are “pandering” to antiwar opinion or “base voters.”
Remember that both Clinton and Obama have resisted considerable and continuous pressure, from antiwar activists and other candidates, to renounce their “hedging bets” positions on withdrawal timetables and residual troops, and just flatly say they’d quickly liquidate the whole mess and hope for the best. It would have been easy for Obama–the consistent critic of the Iraq-o-centric focus of U.S. security policy–in particular to have adopted the “over-the-horizon” concept championed by John Murtha and eventually embraced by John Edwards, that would make near-total troops withdrawal from Iraq itself unconditional, while acknowledging a continuing U.S. interest in the fate of the country.
Whether or not you agree with their policies, it’s just not plausible to conclude that Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama are making their Iraq positions contingent on embracing an implicit “out-now” posture. As for their general-election positioning, so long as John McCain continues to talk about “victory” in Iraq–and he’s made this a signature theme that he can’t abandon without seriously damaging his “straight talk” pretensions–they are far more in alignment with public opinion than the GOP candidate.
NAFTA is less important than Iraq, but probably more complicated. As John Judis clearly explains in a New Republic piece that Will cited, NAFTA in the public imagination is not the North American Free Trade Agreement in its specificity, but a symbol of U.S. confidence that virtually any market-opening agreement will redound to our ultimate benefit. It’s similar to the No Child Left Behind legislation–another policy disconnect between the Democratic left and center–where calls for repeal batten on general unhappiness with overall existing conditions rather than a specific focus on the policies and philosophies involved.
Here I would tend to agree with Will that NAFTA-bashing is a disingenuous way for either Obama or Clinton to convey their determination to rethink the U.S. strategy for dealing with economic globalization. But so long as John McCain and the GOP continue to present free trade as a take-it-or-leave-it proposition, with the “losers” expected to suck it up and somehow survive, then the basic positioning of the Democratic candidates on trade and globalization may be both principled and politically expedient. Since Will is arguing that the Democratic candidates are pandering to the party “base,” I’d note that unhappiness with NAFTA and globalization goes well beyond the Democratic “base” ranks, and is probably more regional and generational than partisan.
In any event, while Will’s warning is welcome, it ultimately invites a direct comparison of the three remaining candidates. And I remain convinced that John McCain’s incoherent rationale for his various positions, along with his consistent but extremist positions on Iraq and on globalization, are a much bigger deal politically and morally than any possible prevarications fomented by Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton.

Political Poetic License

(NOTE: This is a guest post by Will Marshall, president of the Progressive Policy Institute, originally published at The Daily Strategist on March 25, 2008.)
It’s said that truth is the first casualty of war. But truth, and realism, also take a pretty good beating in politics—especially in nominating contests.
Consider what’s happened to two of Sen. Barack Obama’s brainiest advisors: Austan Goolsbee and Samantha Power.
Goolsbee, a widely respected economist who teaches at the University of Chicago, is the Obama campaign’s top economic advisor. (Full disclosure: Goolsbee has also worked with PPI and is a friend). He was muzzled after accounts of his meeting with Canadian government officials were leaked to the media (apparently by the Canadian Prime Minister’s staff). According to these accounts, Goolsbee reassured the Canadians that Obama, if elected president, would probably not follow through on his campaign promise to renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).
Running hard in economically stressed Ohio, Senator Hillary Clinton’s campaign pounced immediately, citing the reports as proof that her loathing of NAFTA is more sincere than Obama’s, even if it was her husband who signed the treaty into law back in 1993.
Goolsbee insists he was misquoted. But even if he didn’t actually tell the Canadians that Obama’s anti-NAFTA bark is worse than his bite, that’s probably the truth of the matter. After all, Canada is America’s biggest trading partner, Mexico is our third-biggest. With or without NAFTA, trade with our neighbors is only likely to grow. The idea that either President Obama or President Clinton would begin an historic, change-oriented presidency by picking a gratuitous fight with Canada and Mexico over a 15-year-old trade treaty is preposterous. And that’s not just the opinion of this pro-trade Democrat: the stoutly liberal John Judis has a new piece out today arguing that both candidates are using NAFTA as a symbol of globalization that misses the treaty’s genuine positive and negative aspects.
Samantha Power, author of a Pulitizer Prize-winning book on the Rwanda genocide, A Problem from Hell, resigned as a top Obama foreign-policy advisor for calling Hillary Clinton a “monster.” She promptly apologized and quit the campaign. But the flap obscured another, far more substantive Power utterance, namely a remark she made to the BBC in which she characterized Obama’s promise to withdraw U.S. troops from Iraq within 16 months as “a best case scenario.” She added:

You can’t make a commitment in March 2008 about what circumstances will be like in January of 2009. He will, of course, not rely on some plan that he’s crafted as a presidential candidate or a U.S. Senator.

Here, Power was telling the truth, and a very reassuring truth at that. Of course, it exposed Obama to charges from the Clinton camp that he doesn’t really mean what he says about pulling out of Iraq, any more than he means what he says about renegotiating NAFTA. In a speech last week at George Washington University marking the fifth anniversary of the Iraq war, Clinton had this to say:

Senator Obama has said often that words matter. I strongly agree. But giving speeches alone won’t end the war and making campaign promises you might not keep certainly won’t end it. In the end the true test is not the speeches a president delivers, it’s whether the president delivers on the speeches.

Fair enough, except that Clinton is also promising more than she can deliver on Iraq. “Here’s what you can count on me to do: provide the leadership to end this war quickly and responsibly,” she said at GWU. And she reiterated her pledge to start bringing troops home within 60 days of taking office, at a rate of one to two brigades a month, according to consultations with military leaders.
The problem is, you can end America’s involvement in Iraq quickly, or you can end it responsibly. You can’t do both. Consolidating the recent security gains in Iraq, keeping relentless pressure on al Qaeda in Iraq, working to reconcile feuding ethnic and religious factions, training Iraqi military and police forces, and pressing the Shiite-Kurdish government to integrate the Sunni Awakening movement into those forces– all these tasks are going to take time, and they’re going to require a substantial and sustained U.S. military presence. As a candidate who claims superior foreign-policy experience, Clinton should know that.
The voters get it. A recent Gallup poll found that more than six in 10 Americans think the United States is obliged to remain in Iraq “until a reasonable level of stability and security has been reached.” And while voters want candidates to have withdrawal plans, 8 in 10 say they are against immediate withdrawal.
At the same time, more than 60 percent of Americans say the Iraq war has not been worth the costs. Such sentiments, however, have not kept Sen. John McCain from playing the overpromising game from the other side. Returning last week from a trip to Iraq, McCain announced that America and its allies “stand on the precipice of winning a major victory.” Such triumphalism may be catnip to hard-core conservatives, but it probably grates on the nerves of a war-weary public that has just marked five years of occupation which have claimed 4,000 American lives.
What gives? Have all our presidential finalists momentarily lost touch with the reality principle?
There’s something about nominating contests that seems to suspend the standards of veracity candidates are normally held to. Apparently, all’s fair in the fight to identify with the inflamed emotions of core partisan or “base” voters, or, in the case of NAFTA, with Ohioans who feel that trade has somehow cheated them out of well-paying manufacturing jobs. In tailoring their message to party activists and local constituencies, candidates too readily indulge in a political version of poetic license, in which accuracy and realism yield to simplistic gestures and symbolism.
Thus, bashing NAFTA becomes a way to show solidarity with working Americans anxious about the impact of global competition on their jobs and incomes. These anxieties are real enough, and voters are right to demand vigorous new responses from government—a new social contract that includes a comprehensive system of worker training, universal health care, portable pensions for all workers, a fairer and more generous college-aid system, and more. But all that is complicated and costly, and let’s face it, such worthy prescriptions don’t pack as much emotional punch as refighting the battle of NAFTA all over again.
So, at least until the primaries end, we’re likely to be stuck with candidates insisting on 100 percent fidelity to crowd-pleasing positions they must know, deep down, they will have to modify in the general election—at which point, one hopes, reality will make a welcome and overdue reappearance on the scene.
Somebody does, however, need to tell John McCain that the primary season is over, and he no longer needs to thrill conservative audiences with promises of “a major victory” in Iraq.

A Brief Note About the So-Called “Conservative Movement” and the Democratic Party

NOTE: This item by James Vega was originally published at The Daily Strategist on March 13, 2008.
As the eulogies for Bill Buckley give way to more cerebral discussions of modern day conservatism, it is worth stopping for a moment to insist upon a basic fact – one that Democrats should never allow the mainstream media (or themselves) to forget.
Despite the frequent use of the term “movement” by the press, the “conservative movement” that has provided the Republican Party with its basic ideology since the Reagan- Gingrich era is profoundly different from the two major social movements whose viewpoints are deeply embedded in the basic outlook and philosophy of the Democratic Party.
The Democratic Party’s economic perspective comes not simply from the legislation of the New Deal and Franklin Roosevelt, but from the epic struggle of the American trade union movement in the 1930’s. Equally, at the heart of the modern Democratic Party’s social philosophy lies the historical experience of the civil rights movement and the legacy of Martin Luther King.
These two social movements had three things in common. They were struggles of profoundly disadvantaged and oppressed groups for basic social and economic justice, they were grass-roots, bottom-up movements in which leaders emerged from the rank and file, and they were led by dedicated militants who made huge personal and human sacrifices.
Both trade union and civil right organizers lived with the constant fear of death, vicious beatings, or imprisonment and both movements had many famous martyrs killed in the struggle (the Haymarket victims and Joe Hill for the trade unionists; Emmet Till, Medgar Evers, the Mississippi Three, (Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner) and the children of the Birmingham bombing for the civil rights movement). Many of the leaders of both movements spent significant time in jail — it was, in fact, a proud badge of honor and a symbol of their commitment to the cause.
Sadly, for many people under the age of 40 these realities — which everybody knew perfectly well at the time — now sound like melodramatic exaggerations. But they are not; they are simple statements of fact.
The modern “official” conservative movement on the other hand – although in some respects indeed a social movement – was and is to a significant degree a movement of the “haves” rather than the “have-nots” and as a result has never had any of the three characteristics above.
The modern conservative movement was heavily subsidized by foundations and wealthy individuals from its beginnings. By the 1980’s there was a substantial network of think-tanks, book publishers, house-organ magazines, scholarships and internships that recruited and financially supported young conservatives. Communication with ordinary people was overwhelmingly conducted by very sanitary, “no getting the hands dirty” methods – largely direct mail and television (particularly televangelist programming) – rather than by any actual door-to-door, grass-roots organizing.
Now to be sure. there have indeed been a number of genuine right-wing, grass roots activist movements since the 1970’s. There have been skinhead/racist/survivalist groups (like “The Order” and “White Power” in 1980’s, the militia movement in 1990s, the Minutemen today), and also broader grass-roots movements to fight local gun control initiatives, to infiltrate local school boards to mandate creationism and to conduct civil (and also very uncivil) disobedience against abortion clinics.
All of these movements shared two characteristics – they were authentically bottom up, grass-roots movements and they were all treated like embarrassing, party-crashing, beer-drinking, trailer park trash phenomena by the official beltway conservative “movement”.
On the other hand when the current generation of “official” conservative spokesmen – the Gingrichs, D’Souzas, Laffers, Murrays, Limbaughs, O’Reillys and Coulters– were in college in the 70’s and 80’s, the worst injustice most of them suffered was having to listen to pompous tenured radicals talk endlessly about Foucault and Germaine Greer rather than Edmund Burke and Adam Smith.
It is important for Democrats to point this out whenever the media casually equate the modern conservative “movement” with the genuine social movements that underlie the Democratic coalition because it creates a false equivalence between the moral authority of the two. It artificially imbues official “inside-the-beltway” conservatism with connotations of a genuine grass-roots social movement – traditions of altruism and self sacrifice, identification with the struggle for justice and solidarity with the underdog.
Let’s face the facts. The conservative movement indeed recognized and capitalized upon a number of genuine and sincere grievances of working-class and other ordinary Americans. But the middle-class and upper-class, white American men who compose the official conservative movement have never in their “custom-tailored-suit- and- tie”, “better-side-of town” lifetimes been the oppressed victims of systematic social injustice.
This is illustrated by an ironic fact. Genuine grass-roots social movements of the oppressed always have songs and anthems that express their deepest social ideals. At the end of every union organizing meeting trade unionists would always sing “Solidarity Forever”. Every civil rights rally concluded with the singing of “Oh Freedom” and “We Shall Overcome”.
There is nothing remotely comparable in the well-funded, “inside the beltway” conservative so-called “movement”. In fact, it is hard to even visualize exactly what kind of spiritual anthem could properly express the social philosophy of the audiences who attend meetings of groups like the Conservative Political Action Council, the Heritage Foundation, the College Republicans or the US Chamber of Commerce.
Oh, wait a minute. Come to think of it, there is one. All these groups could kick off their conferences with a few lusty choruses of “Yo-Ho, Yo-Ho, A Pirates’ Life for Me”. It would fit them like a glove.

McCain Versus Campaign Finance Reform

NOTE: This item, by Matt Compton, was originally posted at The Daily Strategist on February 28, 2008.
Before he won the New Hampshire Primary, the political future of John McCain was in serious doubt.
In October, his campaign for president had just $3.4 million cash on hand (with much that money reserved for the general election) and a debt of $1.7 million from overdue credit card payments and unpaid bills.
By November, McCain’s financial worries were so serious that he negotiated a $3 million loan to keep his campaign afloat.
By December, he was broke again, and McCain went back to the banks, asking for another $1 million to keep campaigning. And this time, the lenders told him they needed some collateral.
Knowing that cash would be a problem for the nomination contest, McCain had earlier opted into the national public financing system, and the Federal Election Commission had already certified that he was owed $5.8 million in public matching funds. He also used the FEC certification to get on the ballot in several late-primary states, including Ohio, instead of paying canvassers to collect signatures.
But in the primary process, public financing is a loser’s bargain. If he ultimately chose to accept the federal money, McCain wouldn’t receive any of those funds until March, and even more seriously, he would be limited to a total spending cap of $54 million until he became his party’s nominee at the Republican National Convention in September. Accepting the funds would put him at a major strategic disadvantage in the general election.
Those facts left McCain with a decision to make. Even agreeing to put up the matching funds as collateral for a loan would have forced the campaign to adhere to the spending limits. So, once he started winning primaries, he planned to opt back out of the system and raise private money until he was the Republican nominee. There was a precedent for that — Richard Gephardt had been allowed to do the same thing four years ago.
But to get the new $1 million loan immediately, he and his lawyers tried something clever — they told the bank that if money again became a problem, they would opt back into the public financing system, accept the public funds from the FEC in March, and use that cash to pay back his loans — even if he had suspended his campaign for president.
And there is no precedent for that particular opt-in, opt-out, then maybe opt back in–legal maneuver.
On February 6, with the GOP nomination all but locked up and the money again flowing, McCain formally notified the FEC of his plans to withdraw from the presidential public financing system.
On Thursday, FEC Chairman David M. Mason, a Republican, issued the commission’s response. The letter is available here.
He told the campaign that McCain can’t withdraw from the public financing system for the primaries until the FEC gives him permission to do so. It cannot do that until it has enough members to maintain a quorum.
Right now, there are only two appointees serving on the commission, and the Senate and President Bush continue fight over the nominees. With four vacancies, the FEC isn’t in a place to make any decisions of any kind. It doesn’t have enough members to make any sort of binding decision or impose fines on anyone. The way things stand now, that leaves a lot of grey in the world of campaign finance.
But even with only two active members, the FEC asked McCain to explain his rationale for why using the promise of public funds to secure his loan did not actually commit him to using those funds. If the commission could issue a decision on McCain’s situation tomorrow, there is no guarantee that they would choose to release him from his commitment to public financing.
On Monday, the Democratic National Committee got into the act. Chairman Howard Dean announced that he would be filing a formal complaint with the FEC to demand that John McCain remain committed to the campaign finance rules.
That same day, McCain’s lawyers told the FEC that he did not need their approval to withdraw from the public finance system. Lawyers for his bank reinforced his claim that he never technically promised public money as collateral.
Now we’re at an impasse, again, and one where there is no clear precedent.
McCain has already spent $49 million in the primary, meaning that if he is forced to adhere to the spending limits, his campaign must essentially cease all activity until he becomes the nominee 6 months from now. If he were to continue to operate in clear violation of the spending limit, McCain could be in legal jeopardy — potentially subject to fines and up to five years of jail time.
His lawyers have the option of taking the FEC to court, but as Rick Hasen has pointed out, there’s no way of knowing what authority the judicial system has over an FEC without quorum. We simply don’t know if the courts have the power to order the commission to make a decision as it is currently composed or to somehow make its own decision from the bench.
But this much is clear: If there exists even a hint of a possibility that John McCain might be willfully violating election laws, he has a real image problem. His name is synonymous with the cause of campaign finance reform, and he owes his good press clips to a reputation as a “straight talker.” Deceptive manipulation of the campaign finance system would not go over well. Moreover, the controversy undercuts his frequent attacks on Barack Obama for equivocating on earlier statements that he would accept public financing for the general election. That’s why Howard Dean is working to exploit the issue and make voters aware of it. If this legal process drags on, it has the potential to make him both a hypocrite and, ultimately, a loser.

Who’s More Electable?

(NOTE: As explained in an earlier post, this is a guest item from Jonathan Krasno, Associate Professor of Political Science at Binghamton University).
With John McCain the all-but-certain Republican nominee, the obvious question emerges: which Democrat is likeliest to beat him? This, of course, is a purely hypothetical question. John Kerry won the Democratic nomination in 2004 in large part because of the perception that he was the strongest candidate against George Bush. He lost, but we have no way of knowing whether John Edwards or Howard Dean would have done better. The same is true of many of the judgments that people make of candidates. We’ll never know whether Hillary Clinton would be a better president than Barack Obama, whether his foreign policy would work better than hers, and so on. The best we can do make an informed guess. On the question of electability, my guess without question is Obama.
The case for Obama as the strongest candidate comes from simple electoral math. The 30+ primaries and caucuses to date, plus the polls and the pattern of endorsements from red-state Democrats, show that he has more appeal to independents, to a handful of Republicans, and to casual Democrats than does Clinton. Clinton’s support is largely concentrated in core Democrats, the sort most likely to vote in primaries and the reason why she remains in serious contention despite a string of loses. Obama is almost certainly right to claim that he would be more likely to win over Clinton’s voters in the fall than she would be to win over his. Although widely interpreted as a reference to blacks, it is independent and Republican supporters who are most out of her reach. In short, Obama begins with a larger pool of potential supporters, one that encompasses the core Democrats currently on Clinton’s side and extends past them.
The key word in that last sentence is “potential.” The main knock against Obama as a candidate – and the main argument for Clinton – involves his ability to withstand the withering attack to come. Obama has enjoyed a charmed political life, with fawning press and weak Republican opposition. Can he maintain his exalted status a fresh, new voice (for change!) once the campaign really begins? The Clintons, after all, knocked him off his stride for several weeks after Iowa with some hardball tactics, although by South Carolina he managed to turn those tactics against them.
Once the campaign begins, the argument goes, Clinton is better prepared. She has been in the national spotlight since 1992, so she knows what the counterattack will be like and what she has to do to get beyond it. She won’t, like Kerry or Michael Dukakis, be surprised by an attack and lose an early lead. She is not invested in a holier-than-thou image, so she can throw some pretty sharp elbows and do whatever is necessary to win, etc. Furthermore, the strong economy of the Clinton years supposedly gives her a solid claim as the candidate best equipped to deal with recession, especially versus McCain.
All of that would be more convincing if Clinton were a proven vote-getter or a proven campaigner. She ran five points behind Al Gore in New York in 2000, two points behind Elliot Spitzer in 2006. (Her husband, his recent missteps notwithstanding, who is a better politician than she is, never managed to win a majority of votes nationwide.) I live in upstate New York and can confirm that whatever Clinton hatred that remains here is muted, proving that with time Clinton can win over her critics. She does not have the time to lavish attention on the whole country as she has lavished it on New York, to get people who discount her to pay attention. More important, against the toughest political opponent of her career in Obama, she has squandered a huge lead and a dizzying array of advantages. If Obama has run a better campaign for the nomination (aimed at appealing to people who will be swing voters in the general) why should Clinton be seen as the stronger candidate in the fall? It is certainly hard to discount his superior rhetorical skills and the organizational success of his campaign.
Nor does Clinton’s ability to match up against McCain on an array of issues seem like a big deal. One of the things that the exit polls have consistently shown is that Clinton and McCain, arguably the two biggest hawks on each side, have done better than their opponents with voters who favor a quick withdrawal from Iraq. What that suggests, of course, is that voters look at a variety of things besides issues. In Obama’s case it is his uplifting message of hope and change; in McCain’s it is his reputation for honesty. Against either one, Clinton’s mastery of the details of government seems wonkish and uninspired. Given the choice between going into the general election with the master of the economy or the charismatic apostle of change, I would opt for the generic message of changing the friendless status quo.
In other words, the argument for Obama is most electable is based on breadth of his appeal, while Clinton is favored for her supposed mastery of the process of running against Republicans. Of the two, the first seems more tangible and more valuable to me. The potential to bring more Democrats to the polls (especially young ones who could help the party in the future), the potential to win more independents and perhaps more than a sliver of Republicans, the potential to keep the Republicans in disarray rather than healing their divisions for them by nominating an opponent who instantly unites them – all these make Obama the stronger candidate. Obama will be savagely attacked, pulled off his pedestal (along with McCain), and possibly even fatally wounded in the process. But will he end up any more disliked or divisive than is Clinton already? Probably not. The campaign against her is, after all, in the midst of its second decade. It will cost the Republicans tens of millions to try to demonize Obama as effectively as they have demonized Clinton, and there is no certainty they’ll succeed.
One of the common observations about Obama is that he is a high risk, high reward candidate, while Clinton represents a surer thing. The risk is that, with his lack of exposure on the national stage, the bottom could fall out; the reward is that Obama fulfills his potential as a transformational candidate. I do not see him doing any worse than Clinton’s worst. But with the stars aligned for a Democratic victory in November, Democrats can afford to think big. Clinton can win a narrow victory, but only Obama can deliver a landslide.

Uniting the Party: Who Faces A More Difficult Task?

(NOTE: This item is by Alan Abramowitz, who is Alben W. Barkley Professor of Political Science at Emory University, and a member of The Democratic Strategist’s advisory board. It was originally published at The Daily Strategist on February 10, 2008).
Now that Arizona Senator John McCain has all but sewn up the Republican presidential nomination, the first task that faces him is winning over disgruntled conservatives, many of whom were supporting former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney in the Republican primaries. To that end, McCain gave a conciliatory speech on February 8th at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington, DC, pleading with conservative leaders and activists to unite behind his candidacy.
Meanwhile the two remaining Democratic candidates, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, are locked in a tight battle that could go on for several more weeks and possibly continue all the way to the Democratic convention. This has led to growing concern among Democratic leaders that a protracted battle between Clinton and Obama could make it difficult to unite the party for the general election campaign.
It is clear that unifying their respective parties will be a key task for both John McCain and the eventual Democratic nominee. But for which party’s nominee will this task be more difficult? The answer to this question will depend in part on how deep the ideological divisions are between supporters of the nominee and supporters of the defeated candidates in each party.
In order to compare the difficulty of the task that John McCain faces with the difficulty of the task that will face either Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama, I compared the ideological preferences of each candidate’s supporters based on data collected in the Democratic and Republican exit polls for California on Super Tuesday. I used exit poll data from California because California was by far the biggest prize in both parties, none of the candidates is from the state, and the primary was hotly contested in both parties.
I calculated the mean score of each candidate’s supporters on a five-point liberal-conservative scale that was included on the exit poll. The scores on this scale were 1 for very liberal, 2 for somewhat liberal, 3 for moderate, 4 for somewhat conservative, and 5 for very conservative. Thus a mean score of 3.0 would indicate that the average supporter of a candidate was right in the middle of the liberal-conservative scale while a mean score of 2.0 would indicate that the average supporter of a candidate was well to the left of center and a mean score of 4.0 would indicate that the average supporter of a candidate was well to the right of center.
The results of my calculations showed that the mean scores for Clinton and Obama supporters were almost identical: 2.5 for Clinton voters vs. 2.4 for Obama voters. In contrast, the mean scores for McCain and Romney supporters were quite distinct: 3.5 for McCain voters vs. 4.1 for Romney voters. The ideological divide between McCain and Romney voters was six times as large as the ideological divide between Clinton and Obama voters. And on this sort of scale with a very limited range, that is a very large difference.
The average Obama and Clinton voter was a moderate liberal. Similarly, the average McCain voter was a moderate conservative. McCain voters were about as far to the right of center as Clinton and Obama voters were to the left of center. But Romney voters were much further to the right of center. Given that Americans generally don’t like to place themselves at the extremes on these sorts of scales, it is striking that 40 percent of Romney voters in California placed themselves at the far right end of the scale. In contrast, only 12 percent of McCain voters placed themselves at the far right end of the scale and only 18 percent of Clinton voters and 22 percent of Obama voters placed themselves at the far left end of the scale.
These results suggest that despite clinching his party’s nomination much earlier than his Democratic opponent, John McCain may face a more difficult challenge in uniting his party’s voters than either Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama. Because supporters of Clinton and Obama have almost identical ideological preferences, it should not be difficult for either group to unite behind the other candidate if he or she wins the nomination. The winning candidate will not need to move to the left or right in order to win over supporters of the defeated candidate.
John McCain, however, may be forced to move further to the right in the next few weeks in order to win over disappointed supporters of Mitt Romney. In fact, this is precisely the course of action that is being urged on him by conservative spokesmen and it appears to be what he was attempting to do in his speech to the Conservative Political Action Conference, a group that he shunned only a year ago. But this may be a risky strategy for McCain since it will delay if not prevent him from moving back to the center to appeal to independents and swing voters in the general election-a move that will be crucial if he is to have any chance of winning in November.

Close Race, Two Paths To Victory

(Note: This item was originally published at The Daily Strategist on February 4, 2008).
As Democrats prepare to vote on Super Tuesday, there’s a new public opinion survey for NPR conducted by Greenberg Quinlan Rosner in conjunction with Public Opinon Strategies that shows (1) the landscape still favors Democrats in the general election; and (2) that Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama bring different strengths to the table in running against probable Republican nominee John McCain. Put simply, HRC currently does better among Democrats, while Obama does better among independents and Republicans.
Here’s the GQR summary of the research:

The race between John McCain and either Democratic candidate produces a very close national race for president — although voters want to be voting Democratic and want the Democrats’ direction on issues and leadership qualities.
Democrats can win with either candidate for president, though the races look totally different. Hillary Clinton has already consolidated Democrats who came away from the primaries even more positive about her. That energy can put her in the race, though gains with independents are key. Barack Obama too gained popularity in the primary among Democrats but also with independents — allowing him to split independents evenly with McCain. But with Obama, a fair number of Democrats support McCain, almost balanced by the proportion of Republicans who split off to support the Democrat. Both races are close but they produce totally different politics and strategies for the general election.
Voters want the Democrats to lead the country, however.
49 percent support a generic Democrat for president, 5 points ahead of the Republican candidate. The support for the Democrat has not changed a point in many months. As the actual Republican nominee has emerged, many dislodged Republicans have moved back to their candidate.
Voters have watched the primaries closely and say they much prefer the Democrats’ issue priorities and their qualities of leadership. The post-primary environment is very favorable for Democrats.
When one takes McCain’s position on Iraq and the economy and contrasts that with the Democrats, voters show a strong aversion to McCain’s direction. Voters want to begin troop withdrawals, not create a long-term U.S. presence in Iraq. Voters favor a stimulus with investments, unemployment insurance and middle class tax cuts, not simply making Bush’s tax cuts permanent.

For those Super Tuesday voters who value electability, this survey shows either Democrat should be able to win, but may follow two distinct tracks to a majority.

Obama and the Blogosphere

(NOTE: This item is by Matt Compton, and was originally posted at The Daily Strategist on January 7, 2008).
As predicted by the much-questioned final Des Moines Register poll, Barack Obama won Iowa on the strength of unprecedented support from independent voters and first-time Caucus-goers.
But well before the Caucuses, on blog sites like Talk Left and Firedoglake, questions were being raised about an Obama candidacy based on what sometimes seemed like excessive efforts to reach beyond the Democratic base.
For many bloggers, the problem with Obama was—and is–that he’s been playing into a much-derided “triangulation” meme in appealing to voters without traditional Democratic credentials. As Ezra Klein said last Tuesday, Obama was using “old politics of centrist caution and status quo bias.” Markos Moulitsas walked back from his announced intention to vote for Obama, saying “you have to have your head stuck deep in the sand to deny that Obama is trying to close the deal by running to the Right of his opponents. And call me crazy, but that’s not a trait I generally appreciate in Democrats, no matter how much it might set the punditocracy’s hearts a flutter.” Matt Yglesias tempered his former enthusiasm for the candidate as well, writing “while there’s a lot I like about Barack Obama, if he wins Iowa it won’t have been by running hard on the things I like best about him.”
In truth, Obama hasn’t been afraid to strike back at all his critics with whichever tool best fits the job. Whether criticizing Hillary on health care or questioning John Edwards on the Iraq war, his campaign throws an effective punch. When he announced his intent to seek the presidency, there were real questions about whether Obama had the toughness to win — no longer. But to his online critics, Obama willfully ignored a crucial tenet of blogosphere doctrine — they accuse him of using right-wing talking points to criticize his opponents. And in their eyes, there is no greater sin than validating a GOP frame.
The great irony here is that, ostensibly, the thing that gives so many bloggers pause about Barack Obama is the very thing that they hate about Bill Clinton’s presidency. In fact, the strategy of using “centrist caution” to reach out to swing voters and Independents has been called Clintonism for a long time now. But many of those uncertain about Barack Obama have a lot invested in an alternate strategy of hyper-partisanship, of one-upping the conservatives, of constant confrontation, and when Obama says he does not want to pit Red America against Blue America, you can almost hear them asking, “Why not?” Obama’s real problem in the blogosphere, however, might be about something much bigger than his talking points.

Immigration, Open Borders and the “Reagan Democrats” – Devising a Democratic Strategy

(NOTE: This item was originally posted at The Daily Strategist on November 27, 2008. Like the item immediately below on national security, it represents another in a series of “Strategy Memos” that deal with large, long-term strategic challenges facing Democrats.)
(Andrew Levison is the author of two books and numerous articles on the social and political attitudes of blue collar workers and other ordinary Americans)
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It is an unfortunate fact that during election years important discussions of long-term political strategy often get oversimplified and distorted in order to squeeze them into conventional campaign narratives.
This is what happened to an important Democracy Corps memo issued several weeks ago. The memo — which offered an analysis of polls and focus group data on a range of domestic economic issues including immigration and open borders — got grabbed and sucked up into the mainstream media debate about the electoral wisdom of the Republican’s “get tough”, anti-illegal immigrant posturing and whether the Democrats should follow their lead or stick to traditional progressive principles.
But this was not the specific issue the D-Corps memo was actually evaluating and its more subtle strategic analysis and conclusions should not be allowed to get lost in the shuffle. The central finding of D-Corps’ polls and focus groups was that a profound and unrecognized degree of frustration exists among average middle-class Americans regarding a wide range of economic issues, feeding an extraordinarily deep contempt and anger at the political establishment, Democratic as well as Republican. The Memo’s key thesis was that, without a proper political strategy, this deep discontent will not necessarily benefit the Democrats next year.
In regard to immigration, the memo noted three critical facts:
1. While Democrats in the survey identified Iraq and health care as the major areas where the country was going in the wrong direction, the top issue identified by independents was immigration and “unprotected borders.” 40% of independents chose this option – no other issue even came close.
2. Immigration and open borders were the top concern for those voters who want to vote Democratic but are holding back – the most attainable swing voters of all.
3. The voters who were most angry about the issue were those with a high school education and rural voters – groups where recent surveys have suggested Democrats might otherwise be able to regain some lost ground.
The first point that should be noted is that these conclusions are focused on how immigration is perceived by a specific group of voters – “ordinary middle-class” swing voters – and not how the issue will play with the electorate as a whole (In fact, when D-Corps studied national opinion as a whole, they found slightly less support for the one- sided “get tough” measures then for alternatives that included some path to citizenship).
More important, the basic problem the D-Corps memo identified is not simply that there is substantial middle-American antagonism to illegal immigration. It is that this sentiment threatens to fuse with three other attitudes among many potential democratic voters: a sense of severe economic distress; a feeling of powerlessness and of being ignored by political leaders; and a simmering sense of class resentment toward the “liberal” educated elite. This was the potent ideological package that Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan and both Bushes used to ride to the presidency and which Rush Limbaugh, Bill O’Reilly, Ross Perot and scores of their lesser imitators have ridden to national celebrity.

Partisan Differentiation on National Security

(NOTE: This item was originally posted at The Daily Strategist on November 12, 2007)
As a Veterans Day meditation, I thought it might be a good idea to take a fresh look at one of the most contentious subjects in intra-party discussions: How Democrats can clearly differentiate themselves from Republicans on national security issues without falling into the “weak on defense” stereotypes conservatives have spent many years and billions of dollars promoting.
To make a very long story short, there have been at least five basic strategic takes on this subject among Democrats in recent years:
1) Ignore national security as “enemy territory” and focus on maximizing Democratic advantages on domestic issues (the default position of Democratic congressional campaigns in the 1980s and 1990s).
2) Agree with Republican positions on national security to “take them off the table” and then seek to make elections turn on domestic issues where Democrats have an advantage (the Dick Gephardt strategy for congressional Dems in 2002 and for his own presidential campaign in 2004; also common among Democrats running for office in conservative areas).
3) Vociferously oppose Republican positions on national security (and particularly the use of military force) in order to convey “strength,” on the theory that “weakness” is the real message of conservative “weak on defense” attacks (a common assumption among bloggers and activists arguing that a single-minded focus on ending the Iraq War is a sufficient national security message).
(4) Oppose Republican positions on national security while focusing on Democratic respect for, and material support for, “the troops” and veterans, on the theory that a lack of solidarity with the armed services is the real message of conservative “undermining our troops” attacks (a common theme in the Kerry 2004 campaign and in post-2004 Democratic messaging).
(5) Find ways to compete with Republicans on national security without supporting their policies and positions (e.g., the 2002-2004 Clark/Graham “right idea, wrong target” criticisms of the Iraq invasion as distracting and undermining the legitimate fight against terrorists).